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It follows that any country with a history of violin playing and making merits a historical account of the instrument there. For Japan, argues Margaret Mehl, a cultural studies professor with a long- standing academic interest in the country, that history is closely linked with Japan’s own.

Indeed, the period covered by the book begins in the 1850s because that was the decade when communications with the outside world restarted after more than 200 years of deliberate isolation. By the late 19th century, the study of western music had been adopted as part of the Japanese government’s policy of modernisation. Mehl describes how the violin came to have a privileged place in this process, a symbol of the country’s global aspirations and ultimately indicative of their realisation.

Mehl is concerned with the relationships between Japan and both the West and its own society and traditions throughout her well-researched narrative. But once this context has been established, the focus switches, perhaps more than she intended, to the key figures in the story. Above all – and leaving aside some like pioneering violin-maker Masakichi Suzuki (father of the more famous Shinichi) – that means musicians, and Mehl provides a service in recounting the achievements of the outriders of Japanese violin playing: men such as Koichi Kishi or women like the Koda sisters (women play a significant role, as Mehl shows).

As cultural historiography, Not By Love Alone is more introduction than detailed examination. While Mehl’s sympathies lie clearly and squarely with Japanese artistic self-determination, there is surely much more to be said on subjects such as resistance (or lack thereof) to western music and the effects on the study of traditional Japanese music, not to mention of other string instruments (the Hardanger fiddle gets more attention than the viola, despite the importance internationally of Nobuko Imai in popularising the instrument). Or on regional differences in the way the violin was taken up – Okinawa is a long way from Tokyo.

Nevertheless, with plenty of references to other sources, it is a useful, interesting account of a short but intriguing history. As such it provides a welcome historical background to the work of the many Japanese musicians who now influence our musical lives.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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